Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Last weekend I volunteered in the kitchen at CUESA's Spring Breakfast, an event supporting the Ferry Plaza farmer's market.

Most of the time, working CUESA's Saturday market events is a pleasant and calm experience. You help procure the ingredients from the farm stands, do any prep necessary, watch the chef's demonstration, hand out free samples of whatever the chef makes, and help clean up.

The Spring Breakfast, on the other hand, is much more of a production: three seatings of paying customers, 350 people in total, large platters of food to be produced. On the buffet line, the customers can get demanding, if not downright odd. "No pancakes," said one elderly woman, waving my spatula away from her plate. "But what's that?" she asked, pointing at something else.

"It's lemon ricotta, to go with the pancakes," I answered.

"Oh, give me some of that. You can put it right on the salad." My co-volunteer winced as I ladled the sweet ricotta onto a salad of bitter greens and bacon, as ordered. Whatever you say, lady.

Even the most well-choreographed culinary event is a chaotic scene requiring a certain type of person: the person who knows how to take charge. I am not that person. I am the one who knows how to take orders. As the Spring Breakfast whirlwind swirled around me, I noticed other workers (to be fair, they turned out to be professionals) taking tasks out from under me, spotting things that needed to be done and doing them before I could get to it. At the end of it all, I felt oddly dejected.

You know that stock scene on TV shows and movies, when something really bad happens, and a witness just stands there in shock? Finally, someone else steps in and yells at the person to call an ambulance, go get help, hide the evidence, etc. The stunned character is always portrayed as a combination of innocent, cowardly and a bit weak upstairs. These scenes prompt viewers to think, "DO something, you simp!" But I empathize.

A few years ago I took a weeklong multimedia seminar at Berkeley, where we were broken into teams to produce a package about a given topic. My group's assignment involved a man who built custom guitars, and the five of us headed out to his home to interview him.

The subject of our story opened the door and welcomed us into his home, which was neat and quiet. He began to show us his creations, and as we set up for recording, someone asked him a question.

The pause before he answered was too long. With his back toward us, the man froze in a standing position and then oozed to the floor, twitching violently.

It was a torturous few seconds before we realized what was happening, then a couple seconds more as we stood processing it, horrified and slackjawed. "He's having a seizure," someone said. Finally -- finally, at least two of us sprang to action. "Call 911!" someone said, and the number was dialed while another person bent down and tried to prevent the man from biting his tongue. I stood there, watching, not sure what to do.

The man's girlfriend, who was there without us knowing it, emerged from another part of the house and ran to the man's side. "I was afraid this would happen!" she cried, and rocked his small and wiry body, which had now settled into quiet tremors. She sat there stroking his head and talking to him, though he was still far away. It soon felt as if we were intruders, wrong in our roles as witnesses and impotent as potential help. Eventually the girlfriend got us to leave, reassuring us that the man would be all right. We were quiet in the car ride back, divided in my mind between those who had reacted quickly and those who hadn't. I felt both kinship and disgust toward those with me in the latter camp.

Most of the crises in my life have been slow-moving behemoths, rather than flashes of consequence. I am practiced at painstaking decisions, torturous contemplation, difficult departures, necessary goodbyes, massive recalculations and new undertakings. Thankfully, most of these crises have been internal, soluble, relatively minor; I had the means to navigate through them.

When it comes to those crises that strike within seconds or minutes, demanding quick and decisive action, God help you -- and me. One late night in New York, I found myself facing a cracked-out mugger in the vestibule of my building. It was almost as if someone else took my place: I ended up laughing at and arguing with a man who was quite seriously trying to rob me. This wasn't bravado -- it was a sheer inability to perceive my life as if it were truly happening to me.

When the mugger left, I dialed 911, shaking and crying. "I don't know if it matters, but I just got mugged," I said. I don't know if it matters. I still think of the operator and how kindly she spoke to me: "Of course it matters," she said. "I'm so sorry that happened to you." The fact that I lost nothing more than $8, my pager and a night of sleep is due to nothing but the grace of some power up there.

In such moments of truth -- the mugging, a road incident, a child's fall -- I have managed to depend on luck and the sharpness of others. Ultimately, one or the other is bound to fail, forcing me to acquire the self-determination that can rescue something so trivial as a breakfast and so valuable as a life.